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5 Beaverton Mystery- A to Z

Motherless Brooklyn

by

Motherless Brooklyn Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Walks Into
Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I'm a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I've got Tourette's. My mouth won't quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I'm reading aloud, my Adam's apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone. (If I were a Dick Tracy villain, I'd have to be Mumbles.) In this diminished form the words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys. Caressing, nudging. They're an invisible army on a peacekeeping mission, a peaceable horde. They mean no harm. They placate, interpret, massage. Everywhere they're smoothing down imperfections, putting hairs in place, putting ducks in a row, replacing divots. Counting and polishing the silver. Patting old ladies gently on the behind, eliciting a giggle. Only--here's the rub--when they find too much perfection, when the surface is already buffed smooth, the ducks already orderly, the old ladies complacent, then my little army rebels, breaks into the stores. Reality needs a prick here and there, the carpet needs a flaw. My words begin plucking at threads nervously, seeking purchase, a weak point, a vulnerable ear. That's when it comes, the urge to shout in the church, the nursery, the crowded movie house. It's an itch at first. Inconsequential. But that itch is soon a torrent behind a straining dam. Noah's flood. That itch is my whole life. Here it comes now. Cover your ears. Build an ark.

"Eat me!" I scream.

* * *

"Maufishful," said Gilbert Coney in response to my outburst, not even turning his head. I could barely make out the words--"My mouth is full"--both truthful and a joke, lame. Accustomed to my verbal ticcing, he didn't usually bother to comment. Now he nudged the bag of White Castles in my direction on the car seat, crinkling the paper. "Stuffinyahole."

Coney didn't rate any special consideration from me. "Eatmeeatmeeatme," I shrieked again, letting off more of the pressure in my head. Then I was able to concentrate. I helped myself to one of the tiny burgers. Unwrapping it, I lifted the top of the bun to examine the grid of holes in the patty, the slime of glistening cubed onions. This was another compulsion. I always had to look inside a White Castle, to appreciate the contrast of machine-tooled burger and nubbin of fried goo. kaos and control. Then I did more or less as Gilbert had suggested--pushed it into my mouth whole. The ancient slogan Buy 'em by the sack humming deep in my head, jaw working to grind the slider into swallowable chunks, I turned back to stare out the window at the house.

Food really mellows me out.

We were putting a stakeout on 109 East Eighty-fourth Street, a lone town house pinned between giant doorman apartment buildings, in and out of the foyers of which bicycle deliverymen with bags of hot Chinese flitted like tired moths in the fading November light. It was dinner hour in Yorktown. Gilbert Coney and I had done our part to join the feast, detouring up into Spanish Harlem for the burgers. There's only one White Castle left in Manhattan, on East 103rd. It's not as good as some of the suburban outlets. You can't watch them prepare your order anymore, and to tell the truth I've begun to wonder if they're microwaving the buns instead of steaming them. Alas. Taking our boodle of thusly compromised sliders and fries back downtown, we double-parked in front of the target address until a spot opened up. It only took a couple of minutes, though by that time the doormen on either side had made us--made us as out-of-place and nosy anyway. We were driving the Lincoln, which didn't have the "T"-series license plates or stickers or anything else to identify it as a Car Service vehicle. And we were large men, me and Gilbert. They probably thought we were cops. It didn't matter. We chowed and watched.

Not that we knew what we were doing there. Minna had sent us without saying why, which was usual enough, even if the address wasn't. Minna Agency errands mostly stuck us in Brooklyn, rarely far from Court Street, in fact. Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill together made a crisscrossed game board of Frank Minna's alliances and enmities, and me and Gil Coney and the other Agency Men were the markers--like Monopoly pieces, I sometimes thought, tin automobiles or terriers (not top hats, surely)--to be moved around that game board. Here on the Upper East Side we were off our customary map, Automobile and Terrier in Candyland--or maybe in the study with Colonel Mustard.

"What's that sign?" said Coney. He pointed with his glistening chin at the town house doorway. I looked.

" 'Yorkville Zendo,' " I read off the bronze plaque on the door, and my fevered brain processed the words and settled with interest on the odd one. "Eat me Zendo!" I muttered through clenched teeth.

Gilbert took it, rightly, as my way of puzzling over the unfamiliarity. "Yeah, what's that Zendo? What's that?"

"Maybe like Zen," I said.

"I don't know from that."

"Zen like Buddhism," I said. "Zen master, you know."

"Zen master?"

"You know, like kung-fu master."

"Hrrph," said Coney.

And so after this brief turn at investigation we settled back into our complacent chewing. Of course after any talk my brain was busy with at least some low-level version of echolalia salad: Don't know from Zendo, Ken-like Zung Fu, Feng Shui master, Fungo bastard, Zen masturbation, Eat me! But it didn't require voicing, not now, not with White Castles to unscrew, inspect and devour. I was on my third. I fit it into my mouth, then glanced up at the doorway of One-oh-nine, jerking my head as if the building had been sneaking up on me. Coney and the other Minna Agency operatives loved doing stakeouts with me, since my compulsiveness forced me to eyeball the site or mark in question every thirty seconds or so, thereby saving them the trouble of swiveling their necks. A similar logic explained my popularity at wiretap parties--give me a key list of trigger words to listen for in a conversation and I'd think about nothing else, nearly jumping out of my clothes at hearing the slightest hint of one, while the same task invariably drew anyone else toward blissful sleep.

While I chewed on number three and monitored the uneventful Yorkville Zendo entrance my hands busily frisked the paper sack of Castles, counting to be sure I had three remaining. We'd purchased a bag of twelve, and not only did Coney know I had to have my six, he also knew he was pleasing me, tickling my Touretter's obsessive-compulsive instincts, by matching my number with his own. Gilbert Coney was a big lug with a heart of gold, I guess. Or maybe he was just trainable. My tics and obsessions kept the other Minna Men amused, but also wore them out, made them weirdly compliant and complicit.

A woman turned from the sidewalk onto the stoop of the town house and went up to the door. Short dark hair, squarish glasses, that was all I saw before her back was to us. She wore a pea coat. Sworls of black hair at her neck, under the boyish haircut. Twenty-five maybe, or maybe eighteen.

"She's going in," said Coney.

"Look, she's got a key," I said.

"What's Frank want us to do?"

"Just watch. Take a note. What time is it?"

Coney crumpled another Castle wrapper and pointed at the glove compartment. "You take a note. It's six forty-five."

I popped the compartment--the click-release of the plastic latch was a delicious hollow sound, which I knew I'd want to repeat, at least approximately--and found the small notebook inside. GIRL, I wrote, then crossed it out. WOMAN, HAIR, GLASSES, KEY. 6:45. The notes were to myself, since I only had to be able to report verbally to Minna. If that. For all we knew, he might want us out here to scare someone, or to wait for some delivery. I left the notebook beside the Castles on the seat between us and slapped the compartment door shut again, then delivered six redundant slaps to the same spot to ventilate my brain's pressure by reproducing the hollow thump I'd liked. Six was a lucky number tonight, six burgers, six forty-five. So six slaps.

* * *

For me, counting and touching things and repeating words are all the same activity. Tourette's is just one big lifetime of tag, really. The world (or my brain--same thing) appoints me it, again and again. So I tag back.

Can it do otherwise? If you've ever been it you know the answer.

Excerpted from Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem Copyright © 2000 by Jonathan Lethem.

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schaeferj.r, January 26, 2013 (view all comments by schaeferj.r)
I didn't expect to like this as much as I did. Certainly in my top five for the year. Treat yourself.
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librariphile, October 21, 2012 (view all comments by librariphile)
Well-placed, evenly-spaced box & highlight SAT words. About every 20 pages, I'd guess. Maybe less often. Excellent Tourette's writing. Good handle on the detective genre, enough to be slightly outside it. EatmeBailey.
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Manek, November 27, 2010 (view all comments by Manek)
Holy living f*ck this is a great book! (Can I use the F word, Powell's, if I don't spell it out? A fleeting expletive is not legally obscene-- can't be, b/c of the First Amendment. Of course, you, Powell's, are entitled to your own policies. In this case, though, consider an exception. B/c- once again- F*CK!). Finished it around 4 am last night. Jonathan L. is a genius. Which makes the MacArthur grant make sense. It's top notch literary noir with Tourrette's Syndrome. Eat Me! While I'm at it, let me also recommend the audioversion of Lethem's Chronic City. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of his work. (Have to say, though, I didn't love Gun, With Occasional Music, which might be a kind of precursor to Motherless Brooklyn). Plot and characters are both fully developed and satisfying. Go buy it, now! Maybe get it for your friend who likes trashy crime fiction-- the one you wish would read something a little more literary. Telling you- this might be the book. Seriously. Your lowbrow friend will thank you.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780375724831
Author:
Lethem, Jonathan
Publisher:
Vintage Books USA
Author:
Lethem, Jonathan
Location:
New York, N.Y.
Subject:
General
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Fiction
Subject:
Orphans
Subject:
Private investigators
Subject:
Tourette syndrome
Subject:
Brooklyn
Subject:
Mystery fiction
Subject:
Private investigators - New York (State) -
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage Contemporaries
Series Volume:
33
Publication Date:
November 2000
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
336
Dimensions:
8 x 5.1 x .7 in .55 lb

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Motherless Brooklyn Used Trade Paper
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Product details 336 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780375724831 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

The narrator, Lionel Essrog, known as The Human Freakshow, suffers with Tourette's syndrome and though you might not want to know him in real life, he's got to be one of the most brilliant characters ever created. His quirky rants put me off at first, but I found myself being drawn closer to him with each page, and by the end of the book, I had gained a whole new appreciation for Lionel Essrog. He's trying to find the murderer of the only man who gave him anything resembling fatherly care. Lionel's search takes on rather desperate proportions, but therein lies much of this book's beauty. There's nothing to compare it to a true original.

"Review" by , "Finding out whodunit is interesting enough, but it's more fun watching Lethem unravel the mysteries of his Tourettic creation. In this case, it takes one trenchant wordsmith to know another."
"Review" by , "With one unique and well-imagined character, Jonathan Lethem has turned a genre on its ear. He doesn't just push the envelope, he gives it a swift kick....A tour de force."
"Review" by , "Jonathan Lethem's sixth book, Motherless Brooklyn, superbly balances beautiful writing and an engrossing plot....Motherless Brooklyn succeeds in the end because the author cares about his creations, especially his protagonist, in whom he instills real humanity."
"Review" by , "Who but Jonathan Lethem would attempt a half-satirical cross between a literary novel and a hard-boiled crime story narrated by an amateur detective with Tourette's syndrome?...The dialogue crackles with caustic hilarity....Jonathan Lethem is a verbal performance artisit....Unexpectedly moving."
"Review" by , "One of the greatest feats of first-person narration in recent Americn fiction."
"Review" by , "Philip Marlowe would blush. And tip his fedora."
"Review" by , "The best novel of the year....Utterly original and deeply moving."
"Review" by , "Wonderfully inventive, slightly absurdist...[Motherless Brooklyn] is funny and sly, clever, compelling, and endearing."
"Synopsis" by , From America's most inventive novelist comes this virtuoso riff on the classic detective novel. Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette's Syndrome, and three other veterans from St. Vincent's Home for Boys work for a small-time mobster. When the mobster is fatally stabbed, Lionel's world is turned topsy-turvy. A National Book Critics Circle Award Winner.
"Synopsis" by , From America's most inventive novelist, Jonathan Lethem, comes this compelling and compulsive riff on the classic detective novel.

Lionel Essrog is Brooklyn's very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in startling and original ways.  Together with three veterans of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys, he works for small-time mobster Frank Minna's limo service cum detective agency. Life without Frank Minna, the charismatic King of Brooklyn, would be unimaginable, so who cares if the tasks he sets them are, well, not exactly legal. But when Frank is fatally stabbed, one of Lionel's colleagues lands in jail, the other two vie for his position, and the victim's widow skips town. Lionel's world is suddenly topsy-turvy, and this outcast who has trouble even conversing attempts to untangle the threads of the case while trying to keep the words straight in his head.  Motherless Brooklyn is a brilliantly original homage to the classic detective novel by one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation.

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